In this age of convenience, why can foods at home?

This article has been updated.

Our cavernous supermarkets overflow with a staggering selection of cheap food in every conceivable state — fresh, frozen, canned, deep-fried and dehydrated, shrink-wrapped or snack-packed. So why the recent revival of these old slow-food homesteading skills?

As consumers, we’re growing more aware and informed, and we’re losing faith in the big-food systems.

As consumers, we’re growing more aware and informed, and we’re losing faith in the big-food systems. We want to grow our own, and when our harvest is bountiful, we want to store it for the winter. We’re sick of BPA-lined cans and pesticide-sprayed, irradiated foods shipped from the other side of the planet. We’re drawn to the security of a full pantry, stocked with delicious treats that need no electricity to preserve.

We want more self-sufficiency — but underneath, there’s a simpler answer. We’re enjoying the process. Starting with an abundant armful of vibrant color from the backyard, farmer’s market, or fishmonger, we spend a quiet day in the kitchen. Our busy hands keep the overwhelm of world news and work pressure at bay for a few hours. It’s a sensory, meditative process. No matter what we’ve accomplished in the larger external realms of our lives, there’s nothing like the pride of saying “I made this!” while handing over a jewel-like jar of jam to a friend.

If you’re new to canning, set yourself up for a positive experience with a little homework. Fruit preserves, applesauce, and tomato-based products such as salsa are all approachable and satisfying for the novice canner. With the right equipment and advice, there’s no limit to the projects you can attempt with confidence!

Local experts, if you have one in your neighborhood, are your best resource. Fortunately, the internet lets you listen in on canning how-to’s with old hands from all over. Here’s a few ideas to start the jars bubbling.

1. Start with the best produce for an end product worth savoring.

Canning takes time, sweat, and fuel; avoid squandering those precious commodities. If you use only the stringy old pole beans forgotten on the vine for your dilly beans, no one will want to eat them. The same goes for most fruits and vegetables: discard the unappetizing and the over- or under-ripe.

Sure, sometimes you can get away with using a giant zucchini from a forgotten corner of the garden for a nice grated sweet relish; unfortunately it doesn’t follow that overgrown cucumbers make crisp, appealing dill spears.

The magic of canning is taking a crate of just-picked seasonal succulence and sealing in that peak flavor for the lean times ahead. In the words of songwriter Greg Brown, “Taste a little of the summer… My grandma put it all in jars.”

Take the time to learn which apples make the best sauce and which are better suited for juicing. If you have success one year with a particular source or varietal of fruit, make notes in your canning journal including the exact recipe you used so you can replicate your success next year (don’t imagine you’ll remember without writing it down!). Once you have your hands on some wonderful fresh food, whether it’s raspberries, romas, or rock-cod, savor its beauty and aromas while you process it with care and attention. A little finesse in preparation will lead to a jar you just can’t wait to break into on a February evening.

2. Resist the temptation to use imperfect jars or lids.

Experienced canners are equally vulnerable to this pitfall. There’s nothing as heartbreaking as discovering a dozen quarts of perfect ripe peaches, fermenting and molding in their jars because their seals were compromised by chipped rims or damaged lids. It’s tempting to avoid a trip to the store by re-using old lids, but it’s not worth the risk.

New lids are relatively cheap, storable, and low-impact — respect your own labor by stocking up. Jars that are stored upside-down in boxes when not in use will be ready for sanitizing without a lot of scrubbing labor, and will avoid the wear-and-tear that leads to tiny seal-ruining chips. I run a finger around each rim before sanitizing to ensure my jars are smooth and flawless. Feel free to re-use old canning lids and jars for storing bulk foods like grains, dried fruit, or nuts.

3. Canning is a science, not an art: avoid improvising.

Put on your metaphorical white coat, and transform your kitchen into a laboratory for the day. Get a canning manual (online or paper) and read it in advance. Use your stop-watch and don’t guess at timing or pressure rating.

Know the boundary between high acid fruits and pickles (water bath canning) and low-acid meats and vegetables (pressure canning), and never cross it.

For instance, adding even a little meat into a tomato-based soup means you must pressure can, no matter the acid content. Sloppy canning is very dangerous — botulism is one of the scarier words in our language — but if you stick to the book, you can have total peace of mind. Home canning preformed under rigorous scientific conditions should be as safe as store-bought.

4. Schedule a canning day.

If you don’t have a whole day, at least start fresh in the morning. The phrase “impulsive canning” should not be part of your vocabulary. We’ve been there: faced with a garden full of ripe tomatoes the evening before a 2-week vacation, it’s hard to resist rummaging through the basement for a box of empty jars, followed by a run to the store for fresh lids, and by the time the counter is clean and the water is heating up, it’s time for bed and we’re facing a several-hour project.

Especially when you’re starting out, canning may take longer than you expect. By setting aside an entire day, you have time to gather your materials at leisure, and even clean the kitchen the night before. Invite a friend or two who are also “canning-curious” — if they bring their own produce, you can share the work and split the products, resulting in more variety for all.

Since set-up is half the battle, it doesn’t make sense to process applesauce after work Thursday, garlic scapes before Sunday brunch, and salsa next Tuesday. If you plan well, you will save time by doing them all in one go. Stock up on snacks, put on some old clothes, and drink plenty of water. Yes, you will be tired by the end, but you will have some full pantry shelves to show for your labor. You will also have earned the confidence of a seasoned canner, with some learning-mistakes as well as successes under your belt.

5. Let your inner obsessive run the show.

Often, in the kitchen, a free hand, some good instincts, and a flair for the unexpected can result in an unforgettable dinner. Not with canning. Here, attention to detail is all. Have your clean white cloths ready at all times to wipe those rims after filling: a sloppy drip over the rim is another good way to sabotage your seal.

When filling, always be as precise as possible about the jar’s head space. Tong-like jar grabbers and magnetic lid lifters, as well as thick heat-proof silicone gloves, help make the whole process no-touch and burn-free.

When I had a batch of eight quarts of applesauce bubble and spurt under their lids during water-bath processing, I didn’t want to laboriously clean each jar and run the process again — I wanted to go to bed (having broken tip #4 above). But I knew that even if the jars appeared to seal, the spurting applesauce had compromised the seals and I could never be sure (until the mold appeared). I opened them up and started again. After the jars are cool, take off the rings and make sure the threads are clean for storage.

Don’t let your inner clerk neglect the essential labeling step: use a Sharpie to note the full date and any relevant batch information, so you can always rotate your stock and identify any related jars if a batch problem is detected in future. Create a cool dark sanctuary for your labors of love, where freezing and overheating will be out of the question, and where direct sun will never touch them. Now rest. Start getting excited for winter.

Online Canning Resources:

Where to buy a Pressure Canner
USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning
Canning Tips You May Not See in the Manual 
Canning Safety Tips — Mother Earth News

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